By Aimie Cronin.
When Jackie van Beek's first feature film, The Inland Road, was shown at the Berlin Film Festival this year, she and producer Aaron Watson walked around the city for eight days in a euphoric daze, grinning the entire time, stopping only to eat schnitzel and drink beer.
The project began in 2008 and to have it completed and, more to the fact, to love it, even if it was just the two of them, was a triumph in their eyes. Watching on YouTube the Q & A session that takes place after one of the film's screenings in the German capital, the audience appears to be as thrilled with the film as Watson and Van Beek and she answers questions with humour and sincerity. In person, Jackie van Beek is a warm mixture of these two things.
When people hear she has written and directed her first feature, they assume immediately it must be a comedy. Best known as (among other acting roles) the nutty producer Pauline in the TV show Funny Girls, or the aspiring vampire in Taika Waititi's film What We Do in the Shadows, Van Beek has become synonymous with the new wave of dry Kiwi comedy, but to pin the actor/director/writer to that one genre would underestimate her scope.
In 2007, she says, she fell in love with the idea of film-making. "I found it such a beautiful, delicate medium and such an intimate medium, that the stories I started creating for film were naturally dramas." A year later, she began writing her first full-length film. She knew from the beginning that she wanted to direct it as well, but she was lacking in experience and so, before advancing it further, she made seven short films, all of them dramas, as a kind of practice run for the biggie. She also had two more children (she has three in total with her husband, Jesse Griffin). "I felt in that time that I produced a lot of small things that grew."
The Inland Road is a story about a girl called Tia, played by first-time actor Gloria Popata. Van Beek auditioned 330 young women for the role of Tia, 14 of them in person, "and she was the only one that scared me and I loved that". Popata has a tattoo on her neck that was written into the story, and her long hair takes on almost a character of its own as it blows around in the southern winds. "Gloria, for me, is the film in many ways," says Van Beek.
In the film's early minutes, we learn Tia has had a fight with her mother and is hitch-hiking down south to try and find her dad. The film revolves around the 16-year-old as she searches for a sense of belonging. The car that picks her up crashes, and when she is discharged from hospital, her father refuses to take her in, so she finds the strangers involved in the accident and she moves in with them. "The rest of it," says Van Beek, "is really just posing questions about generosity and compassion."
On paper, those first few minutes of The Inland Road may seem action-packed; the film itself is anything but. It places a huge emphasis on imagery (thanks to stunning work by cinematographer Giovanni Lorusso) and words are used only when necessary. Van Beek describes the rehearsal process as an explorative one, where the actors were asked to improvise while she stood by, pen and paper at the ready to make adjustments to the initial script.
It all started with an idea she had about throwing a group of characters together after a tragedy. "I wanted to ask the question, how compassionate are you? How compassionate could you be to a stranger, and then how compassionate could you be to a stranger when that stranger potentially threatens your own happiness? I like to pose a series of moral dilemmas and we all think, what would I do in that moment?"
They say good films are the ones that stay with an audience after they have finished playing. There are scenes in the film that pose questions about our own capacity to show humanity to one another in situations that are challenging, to say the least. Van Beek thinks humans are kinder than we give ourselves credit for.
"I have a hunch. I think that a lot of us could be much more compassionate if we tried a little harder, or if we thought a little more. I believe, as a human being, that most people I pass on the street have got very convoluted stories, that most people will have had some trauma in some part of their life and will be able to justify their behaviour in some way should I come across them doing something odd, or strange, or seemingly vindictive. I always think there is a backstory to everybody."
She credits being in her 30s when she made her first feature (she is now in her early 40s), for giving her the confidence to make a film that doesn't pander to mainstream conventions and the expectations of the modern viewer with the alarmingly bite-sized attention span. She slows it right down.
"Its strength is its subtlety," she says. The pace of the film and its lingering shots feel like poetry at times. "I think most of us become more confident with age," she explains, "and I celebrate the fact I care less, I mean, really, really care what an audience thinks, but I care less about being judged about whether I am right or wrong and I'm not afraid to back my own processes." Being given feedback and mentoring by a number of senior female practitioners from the New Zealand film industry empowered her and she remarks they all told her the same thing: "You have to believe in your own vision and do it your way."
After spending a few days with screenwriter, director and producer Niki Caro of Whale Rider fame, Van Beek says she learned a lot about the film she had made. "At the end of the few days, she said, 'oh well, it's simple, you have just got to go back into the writing process and finish the story'. It was alarming, because I really wanted to finish the film - but it was also liberating because I thought, 'yeah, I am the writer and the director and I can write more scenes'."
She has already co-written and directed her second feature, this time a comedy with actor/musician Madeleine Sami. She won't say much, except that it's called The Breaker Upperers, it's going well, they are editing it now and hope to screen it next year.
She describes herself currently as "that slightly overwrought human being, who is often trying to do too much", who only her husband and children get to see. "My children see all sides of me," she says, and she describes sitting down to watch movies with them.
"They always say, 'oh god, mum's going to cry', and I always say, 'yes I will because there is nothing wrong with crying, it's a beautiful thing guys and I encourage you to cry', I'll cry at everything. Every day seems like a mixture of comedy and drama and that's why I make both things. I experience a blend of them every day."
Who: Jackie van Beek
What: The Inland Road
When: See nziff.co.nz for screening times